How did childhood shape candidates for governor of New Mexico?

From childhood to guardian of New Mexico’s children

Searchlight New Mexico

When we at Searchlight New Mexico asked the four gubernatorial candidates to talk about the well-being of children, we weren’t looking for pro forma policy statements. 
We wanted to hear about their childhoods. 

We wanted to understand how those formative years shaped their thinking about what we regard, hands-down, as the most critical issue confronting New Mexico. 

MORE:The teacher: Childhood trauma informed Mimi Stewart’s legislative success

In tiny village, ‘brilliant’ 7-year-old Kate is one of school’s 40 students

How will the next governor approach the intractable problems facing the children and families who call this state home? How will he or she elevate the state from its ignoble ranking — as one of the worst places in America to raise a child? 

Michelle Lujan Grisham

What parental influence continues to inform their judgment and thus potentially affect the lives of New Mexico’s 500,000 children?

We asked those questions because we believe the very future of this state rests on the health, education and success of its children. The 2018 election for governor is New Mexico’s chance to get it right.

As the Jesuits famously told us, “Give me the child until he is 7, and I’ll give you the man.” Or the woman. In that spirit, we wonder: Who was Jeff Apodoca at age 7? How did Steve Pearce get along with his siblings? Did Michelle Lujan Grisham eat supper with her family every night? What did Joe Cervantes want to be when he grew up?

MORE:For these boys, school is nearly 2 hours away and ranching is a way of life

This is home: Stories from one of Albuquerque's toughest neighborhoods

The candidates’ answers to our questionnaire are thoughtful, often provocative and in some cases disarming in their candor. Who would have imagined that Apodaca, stricken with cancer as a teenager, was among the first New Mexicans given medical marijuana as treatment for the effects of chemotherapy?

It’s clear that in many cases their policies and outlooks grew out of their childhood experiences. 

Steve Pearce

Michelle Lujan Grisham, for instance, says she developed a commitment to public service through watching her parents. Her father, a dentist, worked at one of New Mexico’s first public health dental clinics and continued to practice, providing free care, well into his 80s. Her mother was driven to action after Grisham’s sister developed a brain tumor at age 2 and went blind. Sonja Grisham devoted herself to reforming the New Mexico School for the Blind. 

Steve Pearce’s formative years reflect an entirely different experience. In his telling, the family home was “not much more than a converted chicken coop” and his father was “a roustabout” in the southland oil fields. As for Pearce himself, he says he was not “particularly smart or particularly good at anything.” 

MORE:What have New Mexico's legislators done to boost kids, families?

Investing in success: Good education leads to strong economy, experts say

Of the four candidates running for governor, he is the single Republican. His story offers insight into his deep conservative streak and the belief — intrinsic to many a self-made man or woman — that success is within reach for anyone who’s just willing to work for it.

Joe Cervantes

What a candidate chooses to omit is sometimes as revealing as what he includes. Joe Cervantes, state senator and lawyer, recalls growing up on the family farm in southern New Mexico, “working the fields from an early age.”

He descends from one of the state’s agricultural dynasties: Cervantes Enterprises Inc. produces chiles for some of the most popular hot sauce brands on the market.

Asked how he would convince young adults to remain in New Mexico, he waxes poetic, turning to metaphor about the south’s archetypal tree. 

MORE:Analysis shows pattern of failed legislative initiatives to support state’s children

49th in child well-being: What role do rankings play when they don’t tell the whole story

“In its maturation, the pecan tree gives back to the farmer tenfold in its production of pecans, a source of income and well-being for the community,” he writes. “Our children of New Mexico are not much different from this relationship.”

Jeff Apodaca

Apodoca has a more practical response to the problem of New Mexico’s brain drain. The son of Jerry Apodaca, the state’s 24th governor (1975-79), he has never before sought public office. The decision to do so arose last summer, he says, when one of his 9-year-old twin sons asked him to do something to stop his friends from moving out of the state.

MORE:Preschool problems: Federal funds lost to competition as needy children go unserved

Preschool solutions: How other states did it

“I know that for his friends to stop leaving, we need to improve the education system and create meaningful jobs and career paths for children starting in high school,” Apodaca says. 

The candidates’ answers illuminate who they are as people, and who they would be as governor. We invite you to read their full responses here.

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to investigative journalism. Read more in the Raising New Mexico series at
Sara Solovitch can be reached at


From hardship to high school graduate

Water, food, and other basic needs fall short on Navajo Nation; contamination concerns too

The gatekeeper: Finance chair John Arthur Smith holds sway over child-related funding